FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) – Fellow Republicans considered preacher-turned-politician Dan Johnson to be a pariah during his campaign last fall after he kept racist images on his Facebook page disparaging Barack and Michelle Obama.
Now that he’s sitting in the Kentucky House of Representatives, a party leader calls him a “fine fellow.”
Johnson was welcomed as he quickly got to work during the General Assembly’s frenzied first week. He gave floor speeches, joined GOP caucus strategy sessions on restricting abortions and weakening unions, and introduced a bill to keep “Sharia law” out of Kentucky’s courts.
Kentucky Republicans won big as Donald Trump swept into the White House, but as political discourse becomes increasingly polarized and with the backlash against Johnson still fresh in their minds, they’ve sought to avoid controversies that could distract from their agenda.
“We told every member … keep your eye on the ball, don’t run off on tangents,” said GOP state Rep. Kevin Bratcher, the new majority whip. “Our job right now is to pass legislation that gets people to work.”
That means melting the party’s initially icy approach to Johnson and his outsider campaign. The party stands by its denunciation of Johnson for the Facebook images, but considers it a “settled issue,” said state GOP spokesman Tres Watson.
“We’re ready to move forward,” Watson said. “He’s a Republican state representative and we’re the Republican Party of Kentucky.”
Democrats also sought to avoid being tarnished by scandal when they were in control. The Legislative Research Commission settled a sexual harassment case involving three former or current Democratic lawmakers with $400,000 in taxpayer money before it could be heard in open court. Party leaders also sought to distance themselves from Democratic Rep. Keith Hall, who was sentenced to seven years in prison for bribing an inspector he got assigned to his coal mines.
Other current House Republicans stirring controversy recently include veteran state Rep. Tim Couch, R-Hyden, who republished fake news stories on his Facebook page in December claiming Obama’s daughters are adopted, Obama is gay and Michelle Obama is transgender.
And while Johnson was taking aim at “foreign laws,” freshman state Rep. C. Wesley Morgan, a Richmond Republican who owns several liquor stores, introduced a series of bills aimed at helping liquor store owners.
This session’s liquor bills didn’t come to light until The Courier-Journal wrote about them, noting that it’s a state felony for a lawmaker to intentionally take official actions that would “derive a direct monetary gain.”
Richard Beliles, chairman of Common Cause of Kentucky, said Morgan appears to have crossed that line.
But the law has a qualifying section that says lawmakers should be barred from voting on matters of direct personal interest “only in clear cases of conflict and if the matter is particularly personal.” Morgan says no conflict exists because his bills apply to all retailers, not just his stores.
Some Democrats see the GOP leaders’ call for restraint as an attempt to conceal the roughest edges of a legislature that they say has become disconnected from the mainstream.
“They’re trying not to look as far right and as extreme as they are,” said state Rep. Mary Lou Marzian of Louisville.
Republicans have reached the mountaintop of Kentucky politics after years of near misses, winning a 64-36 House majority in November and taking control of the last Southern legislative chamber controlled by Democrats for the first time in nearly a century.
Republicans also have a sizeable Senate advantage and Matt Bevin in the governor’s office, giving them near-complete control over state government. This year’s session resumes in February after a month-long break.
Bratcher said newcomers start their legislative careers with a “clean slate,” and that includes Johnson.
“I haven’t really gotten a chance to work too close with him,” Bratcher said. “But so far, he’s making good votes. He seems like a fine fellow. The people of Bullitt County elected him and he’s serving in his seat as their representative for two years. And we’re treating it as such.”
Johnson, described in his legislative bio as bishop of Heart of Fire Ministries, narrowly ousted a Democratic incumbent in a blue-collar swing district just south of Louisville, even after GOP leaders asked him to drop out.
He brushed off withering criticism, saying a friend had posted the images on Facebook, and his mistake was not acting sooner to take them down. Copies of Johnson’s post captured by WDRB-TV in Louisville, however, show Johnson posted some of the images himself, including one depicting President Obama and the first lady as monkeys.
“I was responsible in the sense that it was on my page for a few days,” he said. “I considered it to be a satire and something that was humorous.”
Looking back on his turbulent campaign, Johnson called his own party’s denunciations “hurtful.” The state GOP said the images represented “the rankest sort of prejudice present in our society.”
Johnson said he has preached in African-American churches and admires the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. “The accusations that came against me of being a racist is an impossibility of who I am,” Johnson said.
Marzian isn’t as ready as her GOP colleagues are to forgive.
“It’s abhorrent,” she said. “It disqualifies you from public office, I think.”
House Republicans held it together in the opening week, but keeping a united front with a bunch of newcomers could be difficult, Marzian said. She predicts the self-styled outsiders will eventually form a splinter group.
“It’ll be like the Freedom Caucus at the federal level,” she said. “It’s hard to keep everybody in line and to keep everybody on the same page. Because everybody’s district is different, or they perceive it as different. So it’s hard to keep 60-some people voting the same way. So we’ll see.”
Copyright 2017 The Associated Press.